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A Never-Ending Story On Ad-Blockers

Quick Summary

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In attempts to fight back against the growing adoption of ad-blockers, many publishers and ad-dependent websites adopt all kinds of techniques from introducing “light” paywalls to limiting access to the site to fully blocking ad-blocker users from accessing the content altogether. It seems a bit ironic that a website would send away potential customers that are taking measures to actually access the site faster, and read the content published on the site without annoying distractions. Don’t get me wrong: publishers need to earn money, and in most cases advertising is still the most efficient way of doing this. We know it better than anybody: with our smart tech-savvy audience, the ad-blocker usage has grown from 12% in 2012 to 55% today (as of March 2016). That’s a huge growth, and it’s a tendency that hurts us massively.

Table of Contents

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In attempts to fight back against the growing adoption of ad-blockers, many publishers and ad-dependent websites adopt all kinds of techniques from introducing “light” paywalls to limiting access to the site to fully blocking ad-blocker users from accessing the content altogether.

It seems a bit ironic that a website would send away potential customers that are taking measures to actually access the site faster, and read the content published on the site without annoying distractions. Don’t get me wrong: publishers need to earn money, and in most cases advertising is still the most efficient way of doing this.

We know it better than anybody: with our smart tech-savvy audience, the ad-blocker usage has grown from 12% in 2012 to 55% today (as of March 2016). That’s a huge growth, and it’s a tendency that hurts us massively.

The vast minority of our readers doesn't use ad-blockers.
Only 25% of our readership do not use ad-blockers. Source.

But here at Smashing Magazine, we understand why people like yourself are using ad-blockers. And the reasons are obvious: speed, performance, privacy, security, a distraction-free reading experience. In fact, some readers might feel offended by the sheer number of ads on this very page. We get that. Although we’re trying to make sure that our display advertising isn’t obtrusive — you hardly find any annoyingly disturbing and animated ads anywhere on the site — we do understand why ad-blockers are so popular, and we understand that they aren’t going anywhere. It’s not your fault though, it’s our problem; and it’s a problem that we, and many other publishers, have to solve if we want to stay relevant.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

How Do You Deal With Ad-Blockers?

Well, as a website owner, you have a few options to choose from, and your choice will definitely depend on the loyalty of your readership and the impact that advertising has on your revenue stream. You could:

  • detect ad-blocker users and force them to either unblock the site or get a subscription, or buy a product,
  • introduce a paywall, effectively blocking content from social media altogether,
  • limit the number of “free” page impressions on your site,
  • ask users for a regular monthly donation in exchange for an “ad-free” experience,
  • use affiliate links to earn on purchases made by your users,
  • publish sponsored content to close the gap caused by ad-blockers,
  • create and prominently highlight your services and products to encourage visitors to support the site and enjoy the ad-free experience.

All of these options have upsides and downsides, so let’s take a closer look at them, and figure out what could be working for you.

Blocking Ad-Blocker Users

If you have serious issues with ad-blockers, it might seem tempting to jump to the tough decision to block users who don’t see the ads on your site. That means that you would display a page prompting users to whitelist the site in ad-blocker settings, or purchase a subscription. In fact, the NY Times, Washington Post, Wired, Bild.de, and a few others are now blocking ad-blocker users from accessing the site altogether.

The main idea behind this approach is a dangerous one: in many cases, site owners consider ad-blocker users not to be important or valuable. After all, these users benefit from the website and use its bandwidth without giving something in return. That’s not entirely true. Indeed, the user might not be giving something back on that particular visit, but over time they build trust, loyalty and community that is extremely valuable. These are the people that are most likely to purchase your products if you offer valuable products to them. They aren’t “freeloaders”; they are your most precious assets.

Yet in my experience from working with large publishers, (fortunately or unfortunately) blocking ad-blocker users works fairly well. Depending on the nature of a website, you are very likely to lose a large portion of overall traffic (often around 30–40%), but you will gain advertising traffic that you didn’t have before, and that you can monetize, and consequently your revenue will increase. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to remain high long-term though since you are losing traffic after all, but it’s certainly a quick and relatively easy win.

However, by effectively blocking a major segment of your users, you potentially alienate loyal readers who actually care about your brand. So if you also offer products and services, you are likely to lose (many) potential customers. Frankly, nobody wants to buy a product in a shop where they seem to be unwelcome and disrespected.

Another problem is the actual detection and blocking of ad-blocker-users. Because ad-blocker extensions are installed in the browser and act as filters or proxy engines, they can block pretty much every script running on the page, and this includes scripts detecting other scripts that block advertising scripts on the site. In fact, there are tools like Anti AdBlock Killer which block scripts blocking ad-blocking extensions.

It might be a matter of days now until major ad-blocking extensions implement scripts like that one within the extensions — it’s already possible with uBlock, for example. In fact, native ad-blocking might become a major new breed of ad-blocking applications. In this fight, ad-blocking tools seem to have the upper hand — it takes a silent update of the filter list for a website ad-block detection script to be blocked.

Twitter Poll on Ad Blocking Options
The overwhelming majority would rather abandon a (news) site rather than unblock it, or pay for it. Source.

At this moment, we’re running a little poll on Twitter to understand what our (tech-savvy) audience would do once blocked from access to a site. The results are quite clear: a vast majority would switch to another (freely accessible) website (72%) while a good number of people would unblock the site (23%) and only few would actually purchase a subscription (5%). Again, depending on the nature and uniqueness of your site, you’re likely to lose a major portion of your readership. It’s a tough risk to take, especially considering that ad-blocker usage is on the rise.

Introducing a Paywall

An even tougher approach is to put on a paywall for the entire site, blocking both ad-blocker users and pretty much everybody else (except Googlebot, potentially) from accessing the site. This way, you are forcing users to purchase a subscription to access the site, and you make your website both exclusive and, well, invisible.

With a paywall, the presence of articles published on the site in social media will be extremely limited since readers will know that most of their followers or friends won’t be able to read the article — just because they don’t have access to the site. (The same holds true for ad-blocker blocking websites, too, by the way.) One way to deal with this issue is by allowing paying customers to share articles by using their unique public ID, so public tweets with a link will be visible, but direct links without a public ID will not, as done by DeCorrespondent.nl (via Vasilis van Gemert).

The conversion for the paywall subscription might be low, very low, or extremely low, but depending on the price and the unique nature of your content, it might be worth it. One way or another, it might be difficult to attract new subscribers, unless you leave an “open door” to newcomers — providing access to 10–20 articles on the site for free, every month. In fact, the latter is probably necessary to “soften” the tough impact of content blocking and attract interest to your website.

Asking For Regular Donation

By using ad-blockers, users clearly state that they want to access your site, but don’t want to see the ads. Well, you could just listen to them, and ask for a regular donation in return for not seeing any ads. You don’t have to block them from accessing the site, but you could make it very clear that the site can’t exist without donations.

Personally, I don’t think that it’s a viable option. We’ve seen that services like Flattr that encourage readers to support creators making the web, never took off in terms of wide adoption, and it’s true for donations in general. In my experience, donations are often perceived to be a one-way conversation where you donate money to a service without getting something in return. Well, you do get an ad-free experience (and probably a clear conscience), but it’s not tangible, and as such not sustainable for regular, ongoing, recurring, long-term revenue stream.

Users might donate once or twice, and perhaps for six months or so, but because they don’t get much in return, it’s unlikely they’ll stick to it. After all, they were getting the content for free in the past, so there is nothing extra added on top of the previous experience, except for the fact that they are supposed to pay now. A service or a product that interests your readers is more likely to remain sustainable than a donation alone would be.

If you don’t want to force users into subscriptions, yet you suffer a lot from decreasing advertising revenue, you could consider reinventing the way advertising is presented on your site. You might think about hard-coding some ads on the page and playing with common ad sizes to make them slightly more difficult to detect by ad-blockers. You might also publish articles with affiliate links, earning money by getting a cut from products sales that might be of value to your users. There is nothing wrong about it as long as you are honest about it and do provide unbiased, trusted recommendation to genuinely valuable products.

You could also publish sponsored content that would appear in the regular stream of articles, but should clearly be highlighted as a “sponsored” article — otherwise, the trust you’ve built with your readers over the years will be gone in a blink of a few suspiciously one-sided posts.

However, the need to earn money will have a heavy impact on your editorial work since at some point you might be unwilling to publish an article criticizing the company that just purchased a few sponsored posts on your site. The objectivity of your editorial work suffers, and even years later, you’re quite unlikely to take a strong stand against this very company or their products. As a journalist, it’s limiting, and it’s dangerous.

Prominently Highlight Your Products

So if you can’t (or don’t want to) rely on advertising alone, you’ve got to create services or products that would bring you the revenue you need to maintain the site. There is no other way. It doesn’t have to mean extra work though. You could bundle articles from your site, edit them, add some imagery and produce an eBook. Or release a bundle of icons, or add nifty features to your site that would make it attractive to pay for a weekly subscription. It’s more than a mere donation because the reader is getting something in return for their payment.

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Twitter Poll on Ad Blocking Options
We display a friendly notification to ad-blocker users who read our articles. Large view.

Then you can (try to) detect if users are using ad-blockers and push your products a bit more prominently. The downside is that you don’t know if you’ll gain a good enough traction to cover your expenses, so in the beginning, you’re likely to have both the advertising and your own prominent product highlights — and then you iterate, to figure out what actually appeals to your users. In fact, you could just ask them, and pivot your strategy based on the feedback you receive. It’s way better than pushing advertising over the edge or forcing readers to purchase a subscription that they don’t need.

The Smashing Strategy: Products + Membership

The way we decided to approach the issue is by prominently highlighting our products once we know that a user is using an ad-blocker. You might have noticed a little friendly box appearing on the top of the page, with links to a variety of our products. Basically, we’ve customized Christian Heilmann’s AdBlock-Honeypot-detection script to our needs, and so for every user, we display this box for a good number of visits (10–15 visits) and then it disappears for a few weeks. It’s simple, yet it’s been efficient so far.

We don’t think that this will be enough, though. We have many internal conversations on how to close the gap that we have with advertising revenue, and we think about highlighting existing products — books, eBooks, job board, conferences and workshops — as well as produce brand new products, new services and a membership for readers of the site.

However, we firmly stand behind our decision to keep the content of the site accessible no matter what happens. Fullstop. We have to reinvent our monetization strategy, and we believe that we are on a good path there. We’re still collecting data, and we’re still considering options, and we will present our thoughts and findings in future posts.

Summary

I strongly believe that blocking loyal readership isn’t a reasonable option for any website. Relying on donations for an “ad-free experience” is unlikely to work either. As publishers, we all have to figure out a way to initiate an honest, direct conversation with our readers and find a respectful and profitable way of dealing with the ad revenue gap. It’s perfectly fine and necessary to earn money, and it’s important to respect the work that goes into producing and distributing good content. Quality content is expensive and time-consuming, and we shouldn’t pretend that readers don’t care, or don’t appreciate the work that goes into publishing. I sincerely believe that this isn’t true.

For ad-blocker users, you could potentially restrict access to the entire content, or provide a little extra service that would justify a subscription or a series of quality products that deliver value to your readers.

Fighting against ad-blocking extensions is a fight against windmills. Ad-blockers have the upper hand, and while advertising will evolve, and it will become less disturbing and annoying, it remains to see if the trust users lost in traditional display advertising can be regained. We sincerely hope so, but we can’t be certain.

I do know one other thing for sure, though. Over the years, I’ve been following a simple principle: “always under-promise, and always over-deliver.” You make a lasting impression, you make it clear that people you are working with matter, and you do the best you can to deliver quality work to your clients. It has worked very well for me. Instead of sending people away from your site, be welcoming and understanding, be respectful, honest and delightful, and who knows, maybe you’ll win a loyal, engaged and respectful audience that will be willing to pay for your products way more than you expected them to pay in the first place.

(vf)